If LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers are looking for any incentive to beat the short-handed Denver Nuggets, maybe this contest will mean more to Timofey Mozgov and J.R. Smith.
Those former Nuggets return to the Mile High City on Tuesday night looking to help the Cavaliers salvage a four-game split of this grueling road trip without the services of Kyrie Irving.
Cleveland (20-9) is completing a five-day stretch comprised of two back-to-back sets. The Cavaliers fell 89-83 to Golden State on Friday and 105-76 at Portland the next night before recovering for Monday’s 101-97 win over Phoenix.
While James was off his game Monday with 14 points and seven assists, Irving picked up the slack with a team-high 22 points, including a 3-pointer with 21.9 seconds left and the shot clock expiring that gave the Cavaliers a four-point edge.
"It is a great feeling having the kid back," James said. "He does so much for our team."
That won’t be the case Tuesday as Irving sits out while working his way back from knee surgery. It will be the third time he will sit out the second of back-to-back games since his return Dec. 20, and he doesn’t expect the Cavaliers to miss a beat.
"We have an incredible team and everyone understands that roles are going to change throughout the season no matter what," Irving said.
James – who turns 31 on Wednesday – has not been at his best on this trip, shooting 36.7 percent and averaging 17.0 points and 4.7 assists. He’s shooting 41.3 percent and averaging 21.8 points in the second half of back-to-back sets, with Cleveland splitting four such games with the superstar in the lineup.
If James isn’t up to par in the high altitude of Denver, Mozgov and Smith may be up for this contest.
Mozgov returns to Denver for the first time since being traded to Cleveland on Jan. 7. He started 35 games for the Nuggets in 2014-15 in his fifth season seeing some action for the club.
Smith is winless in two games in Denver since he played for the team between 2006-11. He made five 3-pointers and scored 17 points against the Suns.
The Nuggets (12-19) will be without leading scorer Danilo Gallinari and rookie point guard Emmanuel Mudiay as they try to spring the upset.
Denver will be happy not to see Irving after it allowed Russell Westbrook to finish with 30 points and 12 assists Sunday in a 122-112 loss at Oklahoma City. The Nuggets also gave up 26 points and 10 assists to Kevin Durant.
The Thunder’s 57.8 percent shooting was the worst allowed by the Nuggets in three seasons.
"We didn’t defend at all tonight," coach Michael Malone said. "Our offense was terrific, but that is a losing proposition if you try to outscore the Thunder on their home court with the firepower they have."
Kenneth Faried had 25 points and 11 rebounds for the Nuggets, losers of five of six.
James had 22 points in each meeting last season as these teams split by winning on the road.